Friday, 6 December 2013

Meeting Mandela - The greatest moment of my career.

I'm often asked what is my favourite photo that I have taken.

I cannot easily answer as there have been so many highs (and lows!) over the years.

Often truly amazing things happen and you achieve great things in difficult conditions and there is no photo to show for it.

Or perhaps there is a moment, not captured by you or anyone else on film for that matter.

In the early to mid 1990's I worked quite a bit in South Africa, covering many different issues from political to environmental.

I was in Johannesburg working with journalists Fred Bridgeland and Ross Dunn of the Sunday Telegraph and there was an opportunity to photograph the recently released Nelson Mandela at a press breakfast.

Being a member of the foreign media I was issued with the name badge with my publication and nationality on it, complete with a mini Union Jack flag.

I shot a whole load of photos of Nelson Mandela addressing the press, not the greatest stuff I will admit, but it was an age before wireless flash was really going on (if only....).

I can't think of anything to say about Nelson Mandela which has not been said a million times before, but his lack of bitterness and an openness to reconciliation are lessons we can all learn from.

After the press breakfast I skulked out of the room to the entrance hall, where I was completely alone, leaving the press throng behind me to try and get the rolls of film in order so I could get them processed for air freighting back to the UK (not a pixel in sight...just imagine it!).

I was deep in faffing around mode preparing and labelling my films when I heard the swing doors to the press breakfast room open. I turned around and I saw an entourage of bodyguards with Nelson Mandela at the centre leaving the press room. Camera not in a ready state to use and even if it had I would no have used it, as they walked by I caught Nelson Mandela's eye and smiled at him.

What happened next will live with me forever.

He broke away from his somewhat nervous bodyguards and stepped over to me.

He reached out his hand to shake mine, his grip was firm and powerful and he had a spark in his eyes which was undimmed by the loss of his liberty for 27 years and a smile which radiated a warmth which would have melted the coldest of hearts and glanced down at my name badge.

'Thank you so much for coming to South Africa to tell the world what is happening here....thank you.'

I think all I could manage was 'It's my greatest pleasure'. My response was lost in this special moment. It was over in seconds as his guards politely and somewhat nervously motioned him away.

The moment lives with me beyond any other in my career.

Nelson Mandela was no saint, nor would he have claimed to be but when President FW De Klerk bravely started the process of dismantling apartied to a brave new world of equality Nelson Mandela took the opportunity without bitterness or rancour to help South Africa take its long deserved seat at the 'world table'

I don't often get into politics even though I'm deeply interested in current affairs but I believe that even though Nelson Mandela had retired from politics he was omni present in the conscience of the the ruling ANC party.

The world will rightly miss Nelson Mandela but South Africa will feel his loss even more. With some challenging times in the current political scene in South Africa, the key players perhaps should reflect on how South Africa made a relatively bloodless transition to where it is now. It could not have happened without the great generosity of spirit, forgiveness, selflessness and above all else, love of Nelson Mandela.

May you rest in peace and may we all continue to learn and be inspired by your remarkable example.

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